Jasper Sharp on haters, doomsayers and the post-Ghibli world
It is always tempting to sum up another year in Japanese cinema with clichés such as “end of an era”. However, the passing of such stars of yesteryear as Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi, Ken Takakura (pictured from Black Rain) and Bunta Sugawara provided a timely reminder that the art of the industry is a long way away from where it once was.
While the ages of cinema they represented have long passed (the last credited performance for Yamaguchi, one of the muses behind Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, was in 1958), the incendiary claims put forward last October by Takeshi Kitano that “the Japanese film industry is going to ruins” seemed to hit a raw nerve with many in the industry and were widely reported in the international press.
What hurt most was that this one-time poster boy for the 1990s international resurgence of Japanese cinema had chosen to launch his tirade at no less a public platform than Tokyo International Film Festival, which had decided to focus its 2014 edition on anime with a special retrospective of works by Evangelion-director Hideaki Anno and the world premiere of Mamoru Oshii’s live-action/CGI hybrid GARM WARS The Last Druid.
“I don’t like anime… I dislike Hayao Miyazaki the most”, Kitano continued, in a brutal indictment of current trends in keeping with the persona of a man who had launched his own filmmaking career directing himself in a film called Violent Cop.
Nevertheless, TIFF’s programming underscored the vital role played by anime, both in Japan’s own cultural landscape and in the overseas imagination. In this respect, the most significant development in Japanese cinema in 2014 has to have been the announcement of Miyazaki’s retirement. This figure from a side of the industry once dismissed as purely the preserve of children or those of a more frivolous disposition has played a larger role than almost anyone in redirecting the gaze of a new generation of foreign viewers back eastwards.
But what of this ruinous state of the domestic industry proclaimed by Kitano? And in the post-Miyazaki world, will anime continue to command the same critical respect and resonate with viewers across generations both inside and outside of Japan?
Well, the newly announced box-office figures from last year show that attendances are up to 161,116,000 from last year’s 155,888,000, and overall takings have grown from 117.7 million yen to 120.7 million yen. While the average ticket price has increased some 40 yen to 1285 yen, the total screen count has also risen to 3364 from 2013’s figure of 3318. The number of releases has also swollen from 1,117 in 2013 to 1,184, with the amount of domestic releases reaching its highest level ever of 615, growing from 2013’s figure of 591, which represented the first time domestic output surpassed its 1960 peak of 547.
Some note of caution should be applied to these otherwise healthy looking stats, however. For a start, over the past few years, the swelling number of domestic releases has also encompassed live-streamed sports or music events (known as ODS, or “Other Digital Stuff”). Similarly, the expansion in the number of the screens has occurred purely at the level of the multiplex, with the number of single-screen venues continuing to drop following the mass switchover to digital projection that reached its peak in 2012 – good news if you are a cinema chain owner, not so good if you’re a cinema owner. That the majority of these were independent adult cinemas screening erotic “pink” films from 35mm signals another end of an era (and perhaps not one most would mourn…), but perhaps the most tragic recently-announced casualty is that of the Roppongi Cinemart, one of Tokyo’s premier venues for independent and arthouse cinema, due to close later in June this year.
All this points to Kitano’s most incisive critique of the industry, that of the increasing dominance of the major studios and exhibition companies which are squeezing out more artistically ambitious or lower-budget films from the market, whether these be Japanese or foreign productions. It’s been an issue that’s been recognised from at least as far back as 2008, when the revenue share for Japanese films first overtook that of foreign imports.
But what exactly are these blockbusting domestic hits?
Well, once again, Toho dominate the annual top 10 for Japanese releases, occupying 8 of its top spots. There’s not a snowball in hell’s chance of the most successful hit of the year, Takashi Yamazaki’s live-action drama about wartime kamikaze pilots, The Eternal Zero, ever finding much of an appreciative audience outside of Japan. Still, it made but a third of the 25.48 billion yen taken by Disney’s Frozen, whose massive success can be held accountable for the slight drop in the domestic share of the overall box-office from 60.6% in 2013 to 58.3%.
The rest of the domestic top ten is largely comprised, as ever, by sequels and instalments in long-running franchises. The two Keishi Otomo directed follow-ups of his original Rurouni Kenshin (2012) adaptation of the Nobuhiro Watsuki manga series of the same name represent two of the more noteworthy live-action hits (both distributed by Warner Brothers Japan, representing the only non-Toho showings in the top 10), with Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends respectively at the 3rd and 5th positions. Again, the fourth grosser of the year, Toho’s release of Hideki Takeuchi’s time-travelling comedy drama Thermae Romae II, is another live-action adaptation of an original manga (by Mari Yamazaki) and follows on from an early 2012 hit movie (and subsequent anime television adaptation that has aired on Fuji TV since 2012).
Elsewhere, originality seems to be in even shorter supply, and in anime particularly, with not one but two showings for both Doraemon and Detective Conan apiece: the Summer holiday release of Stand by Me Doraemon at the number 2 spot; the Easter outing of Doraemon the Movie: Nobita in the New Haunts of Evil – Peko and the Five Explorers – at number 8; Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper at number 7 and Lupin the 3rd vs. Detective Conan: The Movie at number 6. At the number 10 position is Pokémon the Movie XY: Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction.
Studio Ghibli, who tradionally occupy the top spot (save for years such as 2007, 2009 and 2012 when there have been no releases from the studio) are a conspicuously marginal presence, with Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There just sneaking in at number 9, and Isao Takehata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya bubbling under at number 11. This must come as something as a disappointment for the director, with Kaguya his first film since My Neighbors the Yamadas, which similarly underperformed in 1999 – particularly as it was far better regarded by critics than Miyazaki’s parting shot, The Wind Rises, from last year. However, one should take into account that the film was released in November 2013, thus stealing some of its box-office thunder from the 2014 rankings.
With Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki announcing a period of “housecleaning” for the studio while it reconsiders its future role without Miyazaki (and presumably the now 79-year-old Takehata), the relative non-performance of its latest, When Marnie Was There, must be seen as something of a damp squib, especially given how Yonebayashi’s debut Arrietty had taken pole position in the domestic box-office charts of 2010.
While the 2014 figures can be seen overall as healthy for the company bean-counters in Japan and demonstrate anime’s enduring appeal on its home turf, there’s little hint of any freshness or originality that will make overseas viewers sit up and pay attention. It’s all enough to make one grudgingly concede that Kitano might well have a point.